On a chilly Saturday morning, the parking lots around Freeport’s town hall were full. In the overflowing Town Council chambers, a cross-section of residents and businesses were discussing residential solar systems, energy efficiency and financing alternatives.
The gathering was organized by a group called Solarize Freeport, which is the product of the vision and energy of the town’s planner, Donna Larson, who researched grass-roots solar initiatives in New Hampshire and around the country, and helped organized the group.
Solarize Freeport is a kind of citizens buying club that reduces the price of solar systems through the power of buying in bulk. This idea of pooling resources has been around in Maine for a long time, going back to the early town commons and farmers and fishing co-ops. Now, it’s being applied to solar energy, where the public is rapidly moving ahead of the political world.
There was a quiet revolution brewing in that town hall last weekend, and it’s one that is ready to spread across the state.
What people learned is that the average household solar system costs about $15,000, but federal tax breaks and bulk buying bring the cost down to $10,000. It takes 10 years for the system to pay for itself, but it then lasts another 20 or 30 years, producing free electricity.
The overall benefits are impressive. Beyond low-cost energy, you never have to worry about future price increases. Try getting that deal from your local energy supplier.
Can solar power work in Maine, where it’s so cold and dark? You bet. The leading solar producer in the world is Germany, and if you cut and pasted Germany’s location and latitude onto New England, most of it would be to the north of us. It turns out that Maine gets as much solar energy as southern France.
The big power producers aren’t very fond of household solar power, and for good reasons. Decentralized household-scale energy production reduces the need for big generating plants and grid expansions. Worse, from their standpoint, solar energy isn’t something you buy from them, it’s something you make yourself and, if you have extra, bank it with them.
All that without middlemen, oil from Saudi Arabia, massive natural gas pipelines or hydro power from Quebec. The sun keeps coming and the system keeps working, without drilling, mining, shipping, trucking, transmission lines or pipelines.
Solar isn’t perfect, but it’s been improving dramatically. The price of solar panels has dropped by 50 percent over the last five years. When the system produces more energy than you can use, you get credits for future energy bills when it’s cloudy. There are also big advances happening in household battery technology that are going to further spread the sunny days around.
Over time, those technological changes will make the existing grid less important, in the same way that the landline telephone grid is giving way to cellphone networks.
Meanwhile, a big debate is raging in Augusta about which energy sources to invest in. The LePage administration supports anything that cuts costs today, and generally opposes longer-range investments in energy independence. They’ve been most enthusiastic about building new natural gas pipelines, for instance, while eliminating incentives for solar.
Cutting the cost of energy today is a noble goal, but gutting incentives that help expand our energy independence, and keep billions of dollars in Maine, makes no sense.
The other big conversation in Augusta is over subsidies. LePage and company have tied themselves into yoga knots taking two opposing positions. They’re against incentives for residential solar installations, which they dismiss as an evil “subsidy.” But they want to use $75 million of ratepayer money to subsidize big gas companies, which enables them to import more natural gas to Maine and vacuum more dollars out.
Welcome, Mr. Orwell, to modern political double-speak.
Of course, we should be building gas lines to bring gas into Maine and get lower costs, even though those prices will rise as soon as we’re done. But we also need to invest in renewable, home-grown and decentralized energy, and, in particular, residential solar. Otherwise, we’re always going to be dependent on the whims of the marketplace and on pricing decisions made a long way from home.
Businesses work on lowering prices and investing in the future all the time. Why can’t government do the same? While we’re all waiting for common sense to overtake Augusta, Maine people are doing what they do best, which is taking matters into their own hands to get the job done.
They’re beginning to solarize Maine, one house and one neighborhood at a time.
Alan Caron is a partner in the strategic consulting firm of Caron and Egan. He can be contacted at: